Every time the Bengals get a chance to prove something in prime time, they fall apart. It happened again Thursday night.
Andy Dalton had one of his most horrid games on the national stage, and Cincinnati was dominated in every respect by the resurgent Browns. Cleveland's 24-3 victory was shockingly one-sided and downright disturbing for the defending AFC North champions.
"We're embarrassed," said running back Jeremy Hill, who had a fumble. "It's pathetic."
Cleveland (6-3) improved on its best start in 20 years and moved into a first-place tie with Pittsburgh. The Browns also snapped their streak of 17 straight losses to division opponents on the road.
The last win? Also in Cincinnati, a 20-12 victory on Sept. 28, 2008.
"A huge boost for our guys," coach Mike Pettine said. "Just look at the streaks we ended. Not many people gave us a chance."
Just like the Browns, the Bengals (5-3-1) were trying to break away from some bad franchise history. They've played some of their worst games in prime time and wanted to show they were finally ready to hold up under the national attention.
Instead, they crumbled along with their quarterback. They also got drubbed 43-17 during a Sunday night game in New England this season.
Cincinnati fell to 18-41 in prime time.
"It does confound me," coach Marvin Lewis said. "For whatever reason, the two times (in prime time) this year we didn't play well. Because we were at home, there was an energy and excitement instead of being steely-eyed and focusing on what we have to do."
Dalton was 10 of 33 for 86 yards with three interceptions and two sacks and a passer rating of 2. It was another big-game meltdown for the fourth-year quarterback, who has led his team to the playoffs three years in a row only to lose opening games all three times.
"We didn't start fast and that's on me," Dalton said. "I missed a couple early and could never get into a rhythm."
The game marked the first since 1986 — when Bernie Kosar and Boomer Esiason were the quarterbacks — that the intrastate rivals played with first place on the line so late in the season. The Browns won that one 34-3.
And they were in charge right from the start of this one, too.
"We just didn't play good," said receiver A.J. Green, who was limited to three harmless catches for 23 yards. "We didn't play good again on national TV. I don't know what it is, but it's hard."
Playing in a cold, gusty wind, Dalton was repeatedly off-target and made a big early mistake. His first pass was high and incomplete. His next one was intercepted by linebacker Craig Robertson, who returned it to the 18. Five plays later, Ben Tate went into the end zone from 4 yards for the lead.
It never got any better for Cincinnati, which self-destructed in a tone-setting first half.
Kevin Huber's 25-yard punt into the wind set up a 59-yard touchdown drive by the Browns, highlighted by Brian Hoyer's completions of 17 and 22 yards to Travis Benjamin. Isaiah Crowell carried the last two yards for a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter.
Billy Cundiff's 32-yard field goal made it 17-3 at halftime. It was Cleveland's biggest halftime lead in Cincinnati since 1994, when the Browns won 28-20.
The Browns essentially put it away late in the third quarter when Hoyer completed a 28-yard pass to tight end Gary Barnidge in the middle of tight coverage. Terrance West went in from a yard out for a 24-3 lead that sent some Bengals fans to the exits.
Cleveland rushed for 170 yards after managing only 158 in the last three games combined. West led the way with 94 yards on 26 carries. Hoyer was 15 of 23 for 198 yards.
The only good moments for the crowd of 65,871 came after the first quarter when 4-year-old Leah Still — daughter of defensive tackle Devon Still — was on the field for a check presentation. The girl is fighting cancer and flew in from Philadelphia to see her father play for the first time.
The Bengals raised more than $1 million for cancer research and treatment through sales of Still's No. 75 jersey. Still wrote "Leah Strong" on the eye black strip across his face, and police officers at the game had his No. 75 on the back of their uniforms.
"I would describe it as an emotional roller coaster," Still said. "Seeing my daughter in the pregame with all the excitement and then seeing her on the field receiving the check and just seeing the joy in her face, I was just so proud of the perseverance she showed to raise that money."
Notes: It was Cleveland's most lopsided win in Cincinnati since a 34-0 victory in 1987 with strike replacement players. ... The Browns were missing top receiver Andrew Hawkins, inactive with an injured knee and thigh. ... It was Cincinnati's first loss at Paul Brown Stadium since a 27-10 defeat against San Diego in the playoffs to end last season.
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